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Rice: Iraq benchmarks could derail next war bill

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Sunday on CBS's "Face the Nation" that the U.S. should not “tie our own hands so that we cannot act creatively and flexibly to support the very policies in Iraq that we’re trying to enforce.” Karin Cooper / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

President Bush will not support a war spending bill that punishes the Iraqi government for failing to meet benchmarks for progress, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Sunday.

Rice’s comments cast fresh doubt on a potential compromise between the Democratic-led Congress and the White House in getting money to U.S. troops.

With a regional conference on Iraq set to begin Thursday in Egypt, Rice raised the possibility of a rare direct encounter between high-level U.S. and Iranian officials. Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki is expected to lead his country’s delegation.

“I will not rule out that we may encounter one another,” Rice said. “But what do we need to do? It’s quite obvious. Stop the flow of arms to foreign fighters. Stop the flow of foreign fighters across the borders.”

In Washington this week, Bush plans to veto a $124.2 billion war spending bill that includes a timeline for withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq. In a second version, Democratic leaders may scrap the timetable but work with Republican lawmakers on benchmarks: ordering the Iraqi government to fulfill promises on allocating oil resources, amending its constitution and expanding democratic participation.

Rice suggested the president would not agree to a plan that penalizes Baghdad if the Iraqi government fall shorts. To do so, she said, would remove the ability of Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, and other leaders to do their jobs.

Rice takes gradualist view
“What we don’t want to do is to tie our own hands so that we cannot act creatively and flexibly to support the very policies in Iraq that we’re trying to enforce,” Rice said.

Rather, Rice said, it makes sense to give Iraq’s leaders time to meet the goals they have set. She said Bush has made clear to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that people in the United States have limited patience.

“The United States is paying in blood and treasure,” Rice said. “The Iraqi leadership is being told — and I think they understand — that the kind of Iraq there is going to be is up to them. We can’t give them a united Iraq.”

Benchmarks have emerged as a possible rallying point as U.S. leaders seek to show they are holding the Iraq government accountable. But a lack of legislative consequences could prove too toothless for many Democratic lawmakers, who want an aggressive change in policy.

Bush is expected the veto the existing war bill by Tuesday, then meet Wednesday with congressional leaders on the next steps.

Secretary won't testify before House panel
Meanwhile, Rice said she will not appear in person before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to answer questions about the Bush administration’s prewar intelligence. Rice said she already has addressed claims that Iraq had sought uranium from the African nation of Niger.

The committee voted 21-10 last week to issue a subpoena to compel her testimony.

Asked about the possibility of being held in contempt by the committee chairman, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., Rice said, “That’s the chairman’s prerogative. I respect the oversight — the oversight responsibilities of Congress — but I frankly think this one has been looked at and looked at and looked at.”

Rice appeared on “This Week” on ABC.